Melbourne Writers Festival’s 2nd Asia-Pacific Writers Forum


ewPJcGdwThis year Melbourne Writers Festival celebrates its 30th year anniversary, and festival director Lisa Dempster’s most ambitious literary program yet with 540 participating writers and 530 events across 60 venues.

The second Melbourne Writers Festival Asia Pacific Writers Forum was held on Friday 21st August 2015 at The Wheeler Centre’s Workshop Space and hosted by Kate Larsen, Writers Victoria’s director.

A series of informal table conversations were held around three key provocations: increasing diversity, media control and the literary economy

The discussions built on last year’s conversations documented on Peril on the topics of: translation, politics and censorship and audience and readership.

Approximately thirty writers and literary sector workers from across the region attended the closed industry forum and the discussions were held across three groups.

In the room: Alison Barker (WrICE), Annie Zaidi, David Carlin (WrICE), Helen Huang (Phoenix Publishing & Media International(Australia)), Pan Hua (Aust-China Writers Association), Hugh Davies (La Trobe University), Indira Narayan (Peril), Jack Jia (Phoenix Publishing & Media International(Australia)), Jane Harrison (Writers Victoria’s Victorian Indigenous Literature Officer), Jessica Yu, Julien Leyre (Marco Polo Project), Kirsty Murray , Lia Incognita (Peril/Mascara Literary Review), Lian Low (Peril), Michaela Mcguire (Emerging Writers Festival Director), Ouyang Yu, Robert Wood (Peril), Rose Godde (Platform Youth Theatre and Peril), Roselina Press (Right Now), Scott Brook (Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra), Shinen Wong (Peril), Shobhaa De, Hoa Pham (founding editor, Peril), Stan Chang (Chinese Poets & Authors Society of Victoria Inc.), Stephanie Lai (Peril), Wing Yi Chan (D-Writers (China) Project Officer, Writers Vic).    

Provocation 1: INCREASING DIVERSITY Provocateur :Hugh Davies  

“Even as I make this statement, I’m a little bit embarrassed as a white middle-aged cis-gendered male. I think having me advocating for diversity is a confronting provocation in itself, so I apologise … recognising that I’m part of the problem recognising and putting this statement forward. Please let me do so with the good faith that I was invited to do so and which I raised the issue in my correspondence in the first place. In my original email, I wrote, ‘the number of writers from Asian backgrounds represented in Australian cultural events, such as the Melbourne Writers Festival has grown significantly in recent years. But I still see a huge opportunity for Australia to culturally embrace its location in the greater Asian region and to highlight the voices in this unique cultural and geographical setting.’

So, when I talk about geographical setting.. I’m talking about Australia in the Asian region, but I’m also talking about where we are right now. And if you look on the corner of La Trobe and Swanston Streets, and the people who are walking past that intersection I see a really big difference of the people in that particular location and the people who are quite often attending and presenting in various festivals around Melbourne. And that’s something which I personally really want to address. I see that as a really important issue as someone who is involved in an array of festivals and cultural activities. So, I’m very interested in that kind of diversity of voices. I see that we need these voices not to just reflect the country’s cultural make-up, but also because these transnational stories give expression to people who have come to this country recently and in the past. I think this is a really important expression not just for these people, but also for a whole cultural profile of this country. Transnational voices, particularly Asian voices in Australia deliver an incredibly timely reminder to all non-Indigenous Australians like myself about my own origins and the difficulty in locating or relocating to Australia in the present, just as in the past. So there are two questions that come out of this that I see:   1. Do we see this as a significant issue? Do we really push and promote a diversity of voices at things like the Melbourne Writers Festival?   2. The more difficult one is, how we do so? How we do so in a way that is interesting and equitable and not forced, but just allows it to grow?”   


– In France, books are categorised in terms of locations – French literature, US literature, UK literature, German literature, Asian literature, classifications are by country, and there is semingly an equal and overt representation of diversity. However, it’s difficult to identify diversity in Australian bookstores. In discussing this point, it maybe problematic categorising books in terms of countries, as bad categorisation can lead to further marginalising different literature. For eg, if a Chinese writer writes crime fiction, do you put her in crime or in Asian literature?

– In Australia, there’s an observation of literary festivals that structure and programming still perceived to be racialised as Anglocentric and white, for eg this perception includes the Melbourne Writers Festival as well

– Australia’s linguistic culture is very monolingual. If Chinese writers want to get their books known, if they write in Chinese, it’s hard for them to have it translated and promoted.

– Diversity in terms of location of festival events – rather than locating festival events only in the city, diversifying to other locations may attract more diverse audiences.

– Look at how other festivals are programmed and distributed, for eg for Tasmanians, there is a lot of pride in the MONA FOMA festival, where locals feel the festivals belong to them. Do Melbournians feel that MWF belongs to them? Is there a way of thinking about this and tackling this?

– Writers whose first languages aren’t in English often struggle to convey their ideas across sophisticatedly, unfortunately losing the interests of their audiences. It’s important to invest in sophisticated interpreters when inviting such authors, in order to be exposed to ideas from different cultural and global frameworks, opening our worldviews, challenging Australia’s monolingualism.

-Fantastic panel about racial diversity within a literary context in the Voicing Race panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival, which featured Jessica Yu and Adolfo Aranjuez and facilitated by Maxine Beneba Clarke. When thinking about mainstream literary racial diversity, from an Asian Australian perspective historically, it was great to see Nam Le and Alice Pung reach success, but it’s important to maintain critical dialogue around these conversations about diversity, especially having a platform in a mainstream context like the Melbourne Writers Festival. – New migrants to Australia undergo a process of acculturation, in terms of their Australian identity, this process of developing a sense of place and identity takes time. What does it means to be a non-Indigenous Australian living on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander country? What protocols of respect and sensitivity in regards to racial and cultural diversity can be established? – In terms of Indigenous Australians, there are still hurdles faced in reaching a mainstream arts and literary platforms. There has been some gains for eg NITV (National Indigenous Television (NITV) is a channel made by, for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.) – Peril is supporting Mascara Literary Review’s petition and campaign on Specific Strategic Initiatives for Non-Indigenous Australians of Cultural Diversity. Michelle Cahill, Mascara’s editor wrote: “At present the state and federal organisations have strategic initiatives for Aboriginal, Regional and Disabled artists but not migrants. We feel this cannot be rationalised and it needs to be reformed. We believe the representation of migrant writers would become richer, more nuanced and less tokenised than is currently the practice. We point out that very few migrant writers, if any, are appointed to paid positions within the judging, editing, administration or curation of the literary arts. This places unfair limitations on what they can ever hope to achieve in comparison to other Australian writers. Many outstanding migrant writers are not able to find publishers though they are equally deserving. But also, as theorists such as Ghassan Hage have shown there is a widely practiced form of reduction for those culturally diverse newcomers who challenge the social structures that determine the representations of racial difference. We know of many writers who have given up writing in despair, or fizzled out or suffered from mental illness. Our hope is that with long-term structural support we, as a writing community, can prevent culturally diverse writers from being traumatised by a lack of agency and an absence of networks. The establishment of formal initiatives would signal that the Arts community and peak organisations connect to these very real issues for a significant subgroup of writers; to a problematic history of entrenched privilege and loyalties; and to a future of greater cultural participation for all Australians.” (See also RD Wood’s article).  

Do publishers at publishing houses have a responsibility for making diverse voices available to us? Part of the problem is the availability of texts which is related to the lack of funding in Australia, related to the ways in which that minimises speakers and guests and audiences.

– In Australia, there is a severe lack of funding for translators in festivals that are multilingual part of the festival. No shortage of translators.

– Do audiences need to be seduced?   The opening and closing of the MWF were white men who were born 18 months of each other, and their life experiences may not be necessarily that diverse. Is that the nature of programming, that those are the voices that are going to get people to buy tickets or does the audience need to be seduced into that, or is that part of the problem of programming, and is it as simple as re-programming ?

– Romance Writers Conference approached Melbourne Writers Festival and mentioned that there were no romance writers, and together they developed strategies for bringing more romance elements into MWF and that was a partnership that worked well.

– In many writers festivals in China, there are a lot of people from African ethnicities, but in Australian festivals, there aren’t a lot of people from African ethnicities and why is that?

Provocation 2: MEDIA CONTROL Provocateur: Annie Zaidi            

“The question of media control and media freedom is really vital particularly in my country right now because we see changes happening in both policy and law which seek to control the kind of voices that are being heard, and the things that are talked about in the media. I’m going to list a few things which I see as extremely problematic. Perhaps the same things have common resonances in different countries.”

We grow up learning that media is the fourth pillar of democracy and there’s very good reason we say that. The fourth pillar is needed. It’s not like you can knock down the fourth pillar, democracy will still stand. And in country after country after country, one of the first things that happens in the loss of the freedom of the people is preceeded by loss of freedom of the press. What is happening now is that we do have a problem with, in any case getting the media to write about a range of different things including things in inaccessible areas, say rural areas. In India for instance, in most major newspapers in English, you can perhaps count on your fingers on one hand the rural reporters, there maybe two, there maybe three, sometimes there’s only one. There just isn’t a dedicated rural affairs editor in India, except for one or two newspapers and so this is extremely problematic.

And what is also happening is that there is more and more corporate control of media. Corporates are diversifying, so what is happening is that the same corporation controls not only television, but also newspapers, also magazines, also books.   So even books are not really being published by independent houses. And what can be published, what can be challenged is the space for that is getting narrower , tighter. It’s very easy to cut down any organisation that doesn’t have independent funding behind it. Money has just become the way that media is being controlled. And writers are indirectly controlled by the media because not only do they make their money mainly from books, some writers do, but the vast majority of writers also find voices and a means to say what they want to say through newspapers, articles, magazines and that is something that I find very worrying. And the last thing I want to say is that, in this context, a few days ago we had a few state elections and the national election, and what was found was that a lot of newspapers were selling rate cuts to electoral candidates to say that if you give us this much money, we will give you this much publicity. And the candidates who did not pay, or could not pay were told that they would not be given any publicity at all.   And this is of against the rules and so on and so forth, but the Press Council of India did do a report about this. That report had to be possibly diluted, it had to be pulled back because the board of the Press Council of India was dominated by the same organisations that were doing all those things whether overtly or covertly and this is something I find very problematic and I think that it’s something very frightening because once you pull in the media and the journalists, they always come for the writers first, so that’s something that we should all think about.”

– A lot of new media, for eg online media or social media ostensibly enables more accessibility to content and being a cultural producer, and appears more democratic. However, the platform is reliant on US companies. For eg Peril is hosted on WordPress, which is based in the US. Other examples include social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and they are also US based companies, which relies on US based resources and contributes to US imperialism. To what extent are the technological algorithms limiting what sort of speech we get to hear? In terms of censorship, on the one hand, there’s the issue of what types of speech gets to be highlighted or what types of speech gets to be privileged in an otherwise free speech environment. -Reflecting on the Australian context, when talking about race especially, a lot of cultural production in the Australian context is racialised as white. However, one of the ways that non-white voices and some social networks are accessed is primarily through US American/UK sources, and this is an issue for how we relate to publishing as well. – Good conversations with Phoenix Publishing & Media International(Australia) publishing company that has a base in Melbourne about how publishing happens in a Chinese context. Invitations for Australia or non Chinese writing to be published in China or distributed to a China based Chinese audience. Conversation about how intercultural exchange is not only about how Australians can be more diverse about who we are, but also how can we be more communicative so that the stuff around having a relationship with Asia is less about the economy per se and more about intercultural exchange. – As well as political censorship, there’s also censorship around economic arguments about anything that’s hard to sell. We need to resist arguments of economic rationalism – Writers in mainland China are using social media to circumvent government censorship. The size of the Australian population creates problems of economies of scale because our readership is smaller but also the government uses economic arguments to depoliticise suppression of media diversity. This point was discussed also in relation to the changes happening with community television funding and the Australia Council of the Arts changes removal of arms-length funding.

-The Community Broadcasting Foundation (CBF) has proposed a new model of operation that the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council (NEMBC) opposes to. The new model proposed by the CBF disenfranchises the NEMBC and puts at risk the voice of ethnic broadcasters. The present grassroots democratic involvement of the sector will be abandoned.

    • The Ethnic Grants Advisory Committee (EGAC) will vanish.
  • There’s no requirement to have ethnic or Indigenous representation on the CBF board.
  • The Indigenous and Radio Print Handicapped sectors will lose their duly elected GAC’s.
  • The new model will disenfranchise the national peak bodies – the NEMBC, RPH and AICA.

Concern for Community Broadcasting Fund, signatures still accepted here, consultation period now extended to 18 December 2015:

– Sci-fi in Australia mostly comes from small presseses, and some of which are focussed on diverse representations. That’s an example of not being as reliant on the major publishers. Online and social media spaces can create a space for independent media but with web-based newspapers and magazines, questions raised about who’s paying the writers and journalists.

– Self-censorship by writers and publishers before being screened by a censorship body. – International networks can help addresss or avoid censorship or create political pressure, for eg a campaign involving a global network of feminists supported the successful release of five Chinese feminists in China who were detained over a month from March-April this year.

– Diversity needs to come from the top as well as coming from independent media but positions of power and privilege are not held by very diverse communities. So, where are we getting support both financial and in publishing of writers, emerging writers, editors and curators and researchers?

– Important to have diverse writers in schools program, for eg junior levels to hear writers from diverse backgrounds, so that there are role models to aspire to, for career aspirations

– Australia even though perceived as a democratic country, has an unconscious bias in relation to censorship. – When dialoguing about diversity, the understanding of and complexity of discourse around diversity will differ from a Western-based location, to one that is based in the Asia-Pacific region. Diversity should not be forced upon audiences, it should grow organically. – Is structural support important for diverse representation? Writers should stick with their integrity, if they believe in a cause or issue, they should fight for it, not have a victimhood mentality, or perceived to be a victim of the system. – Speaking positions and reflecting on privilege of access important when being critical about discourse around diversity – Last year, Malcolm Turnbull, then Communications Minister, and now Australia’s Prime Minister, had made a decision to remove free to air TV license to community, moving to an online platform. This create bigger hurdles for older culturally diverse community members who are not as internet savvy. Community television services currently have temporary access to spectrum to broadcast to the five mainland state capitals. After 31 December 2015 these services will be delivered exclusively over the internet via Australian Government Dept of Communications and the Arts More about the campaign info here: via Commit to Community TV PROVOCATION 3 – THE LITERARY ECONOMY Provocateur – Julien Leyre “This topic has been churning in my head for a long time. Mostly out of frustration on the way that we frame the whole question on the pay the writers problem. This is what I would like to propose, I would frame the question, and throw questions at you. If I were to describe the literary economy in a simplied world, it would be like this: On the supply side, you have writers who produce writing, and on the demand side, you have readers who consume writing and in-between we have editors, publishers, book stores, festivals, who act as intermediaries. There’s a commercial transaction, that pays for the writing, the intermediaries get a cut, and some of the money may or may not to get to the writers in the end. That’s the simple version, although it maybe more complex than that. There’s four elements of complexity that I would like to add: i) All generally recognise that there’s some literary value that goes beyond commercial value, craft, political relevance, long-lasting potential, and it may or may not translate into commercial success. There are also that equivalence that can be symbolic, but also material prizes, or subsidies from governments. ii) Writers and intermediaries engage in all sorts of secondary transactions: public speaking, workshops, gigs, specialised jobs, film rights, advertising, etc. Not to mention all sorts of complex social and funding strategies. iii) Writers typically take a very long time master the craft. But producing a new piece of writing can be very cheap, and very fast and the profits can be very high or very low. So we can describe literature as a business with high risks and low entry costs which means that writers and intermediaries typically diversify their income streams – why is this? iv) With the possibility to self-publish – new genres, blogs etc, some writers decide to bypass intermediaries entirely, put things online and directly go for the indirect rewards rather than direct financial rewards. These raises all sorts of issues. Access, equity, privilege on the left but also risk of work, short term or long term goals within or outside the literary industry should most be rewarded. Now that I’ve painted this sketchy picture, I’d like to throw a few questions to you: i) Are there business models for the literary economy that we could develop, improve or copy? And what are their impact on literary value and equitable access? ii)What could be the supporting regulations in industry structures and social incentives that could support these business models? iii)Should we focus all of our energies on pay the writers and government fundings for the arts or are there other smarter, possibly easier ways that we could go for to promote a thriving literary income?   

– There’s a lot to learn from other arts economies. For eg the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is quite a successful cultural event, it’s huge. MIFF events are always packed and crowded, and has more of a diverse audience. But of course, film is a visual medium and translation is not as crucial as literature.

– Are writers good public speakers? A bit of a discussion on a writer’s presentation skills in a public forum, and how audience engagement occurs.

– Few possibilities came up in terms of how you can be paid as a writer, for eg in the gaming world there are patron initiatives which can support independent games developers or games writers, where creatives hold an account that patrons who like their work can donate to. However, being able to operate this way means that the individual has to be good at self-publicity and having a particular kind of output.

Pay the Writers campaign should be supported but then looked at in terms of how to pay writers more structurally as well. Currently, how tax occurs in Australia is not sustainable for writers to operate as a business. In Ireland, artists are not taxed at all. Writers in Ireland are particularly well supported in terms of publicity and bookshops

– We need to think about whole structure of finance in writing and the creative arts

– Co-operative publishing, a collective of people who operate on a not for profit model. Publishing enables them to gain profile and status. Business risks shared between producers and publishers.

– The social definition of writer, often owned by journalists, the discourse on pay the writers often forgets poets. Questioned how Pay the Writers campaign structured and its focus.

– Poetry operates on a gift economy, where gigs organised for free, performers often perform for free, and books sold at cost prize. Different economics in the literary ecosystem. Top 15% of poets make around $7,800 from writing, next medium band about $4,500 and the bottom about $200 from writing (including talks, etc). However, prose writers often earn significantly more.

– Poets mainly work for status, rather than financial gain.

– In academic publishing, writers indirectly rewarded by the university’s for publishing (they must publish when working in academia), but have to subscribe to the journals to read their own work

– What is the social value in identifying as a writer, what is to be gained by labelling yourself as a writer in an economic sense, and that’s up for grabs because of the diversity of writing.

Phoenix Publishing and Media Company is the largest publishing group in China, founded in 2001. As a publishing company it has diversified into drama, film as well as the gaming industry. For eg recently it produced the film of one of its fiction authors, Rao Xueman, The Left Ear which was highly succesful and has earned over millions of dollars for the author.  In terms of the world’s largest publishers, Phoenix is now ranked the sixth largest publisher on the ranking this year just after Penguin Random House.

– However, Western publishing companies like Penguin Random House only focus on publishing platforms, not a diverse market.

-There’s a literary value beyond the market, and that’s why most people work in the industry.

-Different funding models for community media, diverse community media. Funding diversity is always a challenge, are commercial interests interested, and what happens when they are to diverse programming?

-Relying on government is problematic because that can be fickle type of funding resource. Community media can become vulnerable to the politics of the day, to changes within government programming and policy.

-Accessing public money for diversity is a political project and it takes a lot of work to get that up and maintain that project, but it’s a really important one.

-That is tied to questions about accessing commercial money as well. The publishing industry is not some commercial thing out there completely separated from government. It is highly regulated and has all kinds of involvements with government funding. Literature is a kind of public commercial enterprise in that way.

– Creative economy arguments are problematic coming out of creative industries, policy making. For the opening claim, that we’re not looking at a purely commercial field and enterprise culture that presumes it doesn’t work here.

For eg, Peril appears to operate via self-exploiting economies of progressive media and highly voluntarist. It has real problems with sustainability, which is common story. However, its proven the need for exactly that where it has pioneered an idea successfully. Funding available to Peril is for publishing content, but not for editorial or administrative work, applying for infrastructure funding tends to be even more competitive. The infrastructure of Peril is voluntary, and produced out of love, which is a model that a lot of literary magazines operate on. Values at stake are non-commercial and not necessarily about making commercially viable careers for the writers and editors there. Symbolic values at stake.

– Noted that Peril is often dropped out of art mainstream programming for events. It gets overlooked, and there are questions of symbolic capital and symbolic value, how do you generate that?

– Commercial success itself has a symbolic value which is far above the actual money involved. State funding can play that role. The entire literary infrastructure of Australia is an enormously state funded enterprise, it’s not a commercial enterprise.

– Symbolic capital is distributed in very different ways depending on where that money comes from, and what institutions you are associated with, where that social labour is coming from, it goes into maintaining a publication.

– What other measures of success and recognition are there? And how can we get a thorough discussion on how symbolic recognition and value are calculated?


Thanks to Stephanie Lai who live tweeted the event. See also her reflections on the forum #MWF15: 2nd Asia Pacific Writer’s Forum

Author: Lian Low

Lian Low is a writer, editor and spoken word artist.She’s currently at large in Peril‘s outer orbit. Previously editor-in-chief (2010-2014) , prose editor (2009-2014) and on Peril‘s Board until 2016.Find her on and Twitter @Lian__Low

Your thoughts?